After tackling controversial issues in your documentaries such as prisoner abuse, the AIDS epidemic, and border control, what made you turn inward and make a documentary about your mother?
Sheila Nevins at HBO approached me about doing a documentary about my mother and I was resistant at first, because it’s my mother—it’s personal. But I also felt that my mother has this amazing story and it would be a great opportunity to share this remarkable person with the rest of the world.
Your mother hasn’t given an interview in 30 years. What was her reaction when you proposed making a film about her?
I thought she would never do it. I figured I would just ask her and she would say no and I would tell HBO she said no. Then I asked my mother and she said yes!
Having grown up surrounded with your mother’s stories, how were you able to separate your role as a daughter from your role as a documentary filmmaker? What was your approach in making the film?
ETHEL is a “point of view” film, and it never pretends to be otherwise. I narrate the film and clearly communicate to the audience that this is a daughter’s film about her mother and family. I’m not pretending to make an “objective” film about Ethel Kennedy. I’m making a very personal film about my family. The film is a very honest reflection of my take on my family. My mother has had a long, full life — she’s 83 years old — but I’ve compressed those years to 100 minutes. So there is a lot of stuff that’s not in there. I’m sure the question will come up of why didn’t you cover this or that. Those questions are inevitable, but at the end of the day, I have to make edits and choices — the film is true to me.
What was your experience making the film, especially now that it’s complete. Working in a documentarian role, was there anything new you learned about your mother?
Making this film about my mother and having the chance to sit down with her and my siblings has been a rare privilege. How many of us have had the chance to sit down with our parents or siblings and ask him or her everything we’ve ever wanted to know? And thought it was hard at times, I will always be grateful for that experience.
So what did I learn that was new? Well, I didn’t know that my mother used to bet on horses on a regular basis when she was at college. Or that my father and siblings slid down the banister of the White House the day Jack and Jackie moved in and I didn’t know that our Seal, Sammy, ate fish but spit out the eyes…So there were a few new facts I picked up along the way. But the greatest gift was getting a deeper understanding of my mother – her faith in God, her crackling sense of humor and her inexhaustible drive. She is a one of a kind. I knew it going in, but have an even greater appreciation of her now.